I am not an artist, but I am surrounded by artists- family, friends, colleagues, and young people. A million years ago (or maybe about three decades past), I worked through each of the lessons in Betty Edwards’ first edition of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and struggled to brake the inertia of my well-designed, verbal-linguistic vehicle so that I could learn to see, not read, images in my world. I followed instructions to turn a vase upside down and draw it. After an intense attempt the result was…a lopsided, upside-down vase. At the time, I wondered how the heck I would ever draw flowers in a vase- if I could only “see” shapes when turned upside down. Most importantly, while working side by side with a colleague who could capture the imagery of vase from any direction, my own limitations as a spatial learner became self-evident. With this experience, I began a journey to understand how different people seem to process learning differently and the implications for learners and learning in the spaces we call schools.
This journey eventually led to a rural elementary school where I had the chance to work with the most extraordinary of colleagues in creating learning spaces where all children were immersed in inquiry learning fueled by instruction grounded in the arts. In the decade that I worked at this school, we authenticated that while not every child requires arts pathways for learning in school; for some children, arts pathways are essential to access and demonstrate intelligences that would not be otherwise explicitly known to their teachers.
We also learned over time that all children benefitted from developing capabilities to see and think visually, to perform, and to link writing with imagery in project-based, i-Search learning anthologies. We began a Quest-Fest in which each child, groups of children, and whole classes shared their year’s worth of learning through an exposition of the arts as a way of learning, the school’s vision as reality. I have been gone ten years but Quest-Fest 2011 is just two months away, a tradition holding sway over many years now and standing strong against the tests of our time. This school also has proven through a tradition of high achievement that a “regular” school’s students- not a magnet or charter school- can succeed by enhancing arts as a tool for learning. By any measure, state tests, AYP, or achievements in middle or high school-children from this school excel. The teachers attribute it to everyone’s hard work- and the arts.
Unfortunately, we hear stories daily from across the nation about the significant loss of funding for the arts – Pk-12 programs, higher education, museums, artist residencies, community orchestras, affecting young people and communities everywhere. At the same time, we also hear about a deep value for the arts from very important people. Over the last two weeks, I have been tuned in to what people say who have the potential to shape public opinion, policy, and funding. I wonder how and when these words will begin to staunch the bleeding of arts programming from our schools and communities.
In a speech (April 10, 2010) at the annual National School Board Association, Diane Ravitch, author of current best seller, the Death and Life of the Great American School System, said, “if there is one federal mandate we need, it is that all children learn to play a musical instrument.”
In a speech at the annual Intel Visioning Conference (April 15, 2010), assistant deputy Secretary for Education for the USDOE said, “I have not been in a high-performing high school without a strong arts program.”
In the nationally televised CNN program, Fixing America’s Schools (April 16, 2010) Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, said that arts and music classes should not be eliminated from our schools; our students need a well rounded education that includes all kinds of activities; such as drama, chess, debate.
In the extended world beyond public education, we hear about the importance of the arts as a tool for lifelong learners in our workforce. Daniel Pink has a deep appreciation of why the creative processes embedded in the arts can serve as a critical energy source to fuel a contemporary workforce. Theo Jansen speaks from his own perspective as engineer and kinetic sculptor about transdisciplinary linkages between his two careers, “there really are no boundaries… the walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds.” When deployed into space, a significant cohort of astronauts have lugged musical instruments with them so they can practice during free times while living in the international space station, using music to relieve the stressors of their day- and night- jobs.
Engagement in arts activities deepens the learning and social experiences of all young people. The National Arts Education Association says young people can learn ten vital lessons from learning through the arts. Our educators can tell you why art matters in our classrooms and schools. The national PTA , the most active of parent advocacy groups, believes wholeheartedly in the arts for all young people. And our young people see the arts as significant in their learning lives. So, when it comes down to it, politicians, the workforce community, the media, educators, parents, and students all see the arts as essential for many reasons, including economic vitality. With all this backing, I have to wonder why the arts still remain a program on the budget chopping block in 2011- yet cuts abound across the nation. Arts were placed at significant risk in 2010 and losses from last year in New York City will only go deeper this year. This story plays out district by district, state by state, and in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps, affirming the value of the arts in our schools may demand something else from all of us. As Henri Matisse liked to say, “Creativity takes courage.” I hope courage is not in short supply when it comes to sustaining arts in our schools, our communities, our states, and our nation. I also am counting on very important people to not just talk the rhetoric but also to walk the importance of the arts in our nation’s curricula. After all, our commitment to the arts says a lot about who are and who we are becoming as a nation.
I’m not proposing any reductions to the arts in the district where I work. I don’t want our halls to look like those of the USDOE.